The Ethics Of… Rape Culture

Rape Culture is one of those highfalutin academic ideas you may have heard thrown around in the media now and then, but are probably bit hazy of its meaning. What you probably do know a lot about on the other hand are a series of catchphrases that went around last year:

It started with “Don’t tell women what to wear, teach men not to rape”, an argument against the trend of blaming victims of sexual assault for wearing ‘provocative’ clothing.

This was quickly followed by the chant “Not all men”, which pointed out that the whole ‘teach men not to rape’ thing implies that all men are rapists waiting to happen, which is insulting, not to mention blatantly sexist.

This in turn was followed by the counter-chant “Yes all women”, which argued that regardless of whether men in general can be trusted, that doesn’t change the fact that all women are still at risk from sexual violence.

The media at the time called this a ‘debate’. I call it Bullshit Tennis, where each side completely ignores the arguments of the other side and take turns lobbing totally unrelated arguments at each other.

As seen in the abortion debate.

All three of these arguments are legitimate, and all three miss the point they were ‘responding’ to. Blaming victims (male or female) for being sexually assaulted is ludicrous, true, but the implication that men need to be taught not to be rapists is also ludicrous since the VAST majority of them don’t need to be told. And while it’s more than fair to object to the sexism of that statement, that is in no way a rebuttal of the fact that victim blaming does occur, with disturbing frequency. And while it’s ALSO fair to point out that all women are indeed at risk from sexual violence, that in no way rebuts the fact that ‘teach men not to rape’ is an idiotic, sexist statement in itself.

The sad result of all this dumb debate was that the general public were finally introduced to the idea of Rape Culture, and immediately associated it with ‘all men are potential rapists’. Hooray for loud people.

This has caused quite a reaction, for obvious reasons since it implies that our modern society not only accepts, but enables sexual violence – a claim which is pretty obviously false. Sure sexual violence definitely occurs, but at 28.6 cases per 100,000 people and dropping, it is relatively rare and almost universally condemned. Problems like victim blaming still exist, but the legal, social and political responses to rape have never been more informed or effective than they are now. To argue that Australia or the USA suffers from a ‘rape culture’ is ridiculous and blatantly false, and critics have been swift to point out that the idea can and has been used to enable censorship, paranoia and a ‘guilty-until-proven-innocent’ attitude to those accused of sexual violence (a notoriously difficult to prove crime).

And all of these criticisms are completely correct – to the degree that ‘rape culture’ means that our society widely supports and endorses rape. But of course, that’s not what Rape Culture is actually about at all.


Just sayin’

Let’s be clear; rape and sexual violence still occur in our society. Given this, then the question must be asked why that violence occurs. It’s tempting to write off rapists as ‘evil’ or the attacks being totally spontaneous psychotic acts, but since the vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone the victim already knows, this is clearly false.

Sure rape occurs a hell of a lot less than it used to and our general attitude towards the crime is a hell of a lot more progressive than it used to be, but that just makes the question all the more pressing; why does sexual violence keep occurring even though we all so clearly know that it’s wrong?

The answers to this question, whatever they may be, are Rape Culture – cultural, social, economic and environmental factors that make sexual violence by any given attacker possible. You’ll notice that, rather than the simplistic labeling of an entire community as pro or anti-rape, this is a far more specific question which will produce different result for each specific case. It may be that a given attack was the result of purely psychological factors, and the attacker’s education, social network and culture all clearly opposed their actions. But it may also be that the attack was the result of a skewed sense of what was acceptable, based on the social norms the attacker was part of which made it possible to rationalise the act to themselves.

This is all nicely illustrated by the case this week of Brock Turner, convicted of raping an unconscious women in 2015, who was only given a six-month sentence because the conviction has ‘ruined his life’ – reasoning you might recognise as being utterly insane.

Geeze, you rape one person and suddenly you’re the bad guy. Political correctness gone mad, amiright?

This would be bad enough in itself, but what really sealed the deal was the letter his father submitted to the court which argued that Brock having his life ruined was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”.

So let’s ask that question: what factors made this rape possible? There was no psychotic breakdown since Brock never tried that defence and was deemed fit to stand trial. So what made this otherwise normal person viciously attack another in a way so roundly condemned by his society? Colour me crazy here, but I’m going to suggest his father’s attitude to the situation might be a pretty massive factor.

Here we have a massive role model for the attacker who described a brutal act of sexual violence as “20 minutes of action” that clearly pale into insignificance against the loss of opportunity the attacker now faces. It may be limited to just the Turner family unit, but if that isn’t a culture that accepts or even enables rape then I don’t know what is.

To take this up a step, consider the infamous Steubenville High School rape case from 2013. Without going to the extremely awful details of the case, this was a crime involving pre-meditation, organisation, a group of attackers and was overall a far worse crime. And when that crime was eventually reported and the attackers charged, the Steubenville community not only came out in support of the attackers, but actively tried to impede the investigation.

And just in case the fellas were feeling left out, we have the case of a 13 year old boy attacked by schoolmates where the community’s reaction was somehow even worse – not only did students, parents and teachers side with the attackers, they actively harassed the victim, even wearing shirts to school supporting the attackers.

So here we have two entire communities whose actions not only supported these incredibly violent attacks, but clearly endorse them as acceptable in case anyone ever feels like trying it again – Rape Cultures in other words.

Media sure wasn’t helping either. Seriously, what is it about athletes that we’re willing to forgive them stuff we’d crucify anyone else for?

So how is the simple description of things that cause rape controversial? Because the logical next step after identifying those causes is to start hunting them down and eliminating them from society. That means changing the way people act and think, including those who have never been involved in sexual violence – after all, Brock Turner’s dad has never raped anyone, but his attitude sure as hell enabled his son to.

And bam! Just like that you have a situation where feminists have a mandate to tell other people what to do, which never goes down well. Consider this list of 25 examples of rape culture; what this boils down to are behaviours we know contribute to the normalisation/support of sexual violence, but which have not as yet been known to cause sexual violence. In other words behaviours we want to stamp out because they might contribute to sexual violence.

From an ethical point of view, that’s a mighty blurry line right there (ironically enough considering item number 2 on that list). Controlling what people can and cannot do based on how it might affect the behaviour of others is highly questionable to say the least – not all that different from making women dress modestly to protect them from sexual assault in fact! But the fact remains that rape has causes and eliminating those causes will help prevent rape.

So where do we draw the line? The same way we always do: we weigh up the pros and the cons of each situation.

Take Robin Thicke’s sorta-controversial hit ‘Blurred Lines’ for example, which was criticised by a number of groups for being ‘kinda rapey’.

Is the line “I know you want it” a bit off-colour and open to interpretation? For sure. But does the song in any way promote or even involve sexual violence. No, no it does not. And given the lyrics also contain the line “What rhymes with hug me?”, and the video clip includes a number of fairly assertive women and tends to portray Thicke as more foppish git than masculine predator, I don’t think we really have a problem here (happy to see people keeping a critical eye on it though).

Contrast that against this fun little chant by a student group in a Canadian university;

Yeah, now we have a problem.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Rape Culture

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